Space Cover #243: Milt Thompson and the X-15
Well, in our ongoing bios of unsung X-15 pilots (SCOTW's 80, 143, 165, 196, 207, and 226), let's now focus on NASA pilot Milton O. "Milt" Thompson.
Milt Thompson completed Navy basic training right at the end of WWII. He stayed in the Navy to earn pilot wings and flew F-8 Bearcat fighter planes. He left the Navy in 1949 to work his way through engineering school flying cropdusting missions. Thompson worked for Boeing for several years, then joined NACA as a research pilot at Edwards in 1956. He became a NASA pilot/consultant to the Air Force Dyna-Soar Project in 1959, and was named as the sole civilian pilot for Dyna-Soar in 1962. Once Dyna-Soar was canceled, Thompson was named to the X-15 Project, and flew his first mission on October 29, 1963, as shown on the Edwards AFB machine canceled, Boy Scout cacheted, autographed cover above. He reached Mach 4 on this pilot-checkout flight.
Thompson went on to fly 13 more missions in the X-15. All of his missions were research-related, and he never got to fly a record-setting or astronaut-wings flight. His final X-15 mission was completed on August 25, 1965, when he reached Mach 5.1 and over 40 miles in altitude (Edwards, CA machine canceled, Boy Scout cacheted, autographed cover below).
Coincident with his stint in the X-15, Thompson flew other research missions in the PARASEV – a precursor for the (then) planned paraglider for Gemini. He also flew the first missions of the plywood wingless M2-F1 lifting body aircraft (see SCOTW's 20 and 134), a testbed for future space shuttle configurations. He moved to the second generation Northrop M2-F2 lifting body, made of metal and capable of carrying a rocket engine, after completing his X-15 stint. He flew the maiden flight of the M2-F2 on July 12, 1966 (Northrop metered and cacheted cover below).
Thompson flew several more M2-F2 flights, and then made the decision to completely retire from flying later in 1966. He was named the Chief Engineer at NASA-Dryden and served in that capacity up until his death in 1993.
I have a couple of fond remembrances of Milt. In 1987 or 88, I was trying to assemble a complete log of all of the M2-F1 flights (reportedly around 400, and not well documented). I assembled the 20-30 flights that I could identify, and on a lark, I sent that list to Thompson for a sanity check (I had never met nor spoken with him before). A year went by and I had totally forgotten about it. Then I suddenly got a phone call from one Milt Thompson apologizing for taking so long, but telling me that during that year that he and Dale Reed had assembled the best log that they could, and a copy was in the mail to me! I was amazed at the time and consideration! You can see a portion of that log today in Reed's book Wingless Flight, and the complete log in the Space Unit's "Edwards Rocketplane Cover Handbook". Then in 1989, Milt invited me to the X-15 30th Anniversary celebration! I remember him describing the severe acceleration in the X-15 when the engine was running, ending with the joke that "The X-15 was the only airplane I ever flew where I was glad when the engine quit!" Milt was always kind to collectors, and just happy that someone remembered the great things that he had done.
Yet another unsung American hero...